This Census-Taker by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”I knew that, by whatever means he’d killed it, it was not to eat. I wanted to cry; I stood still.
He had it by the neck. Its brown body was bigger than a baby’s. Its shovel head lolled and its nasty hook beak twitched open and closed to snap faintly with each of my father’s steps. The bird’s broad feet dangled on the ground and bounced on stones as if it were trying to claw itself incompetently to a stop.”
There have been wars. Civilization has fallen backwards and stalled in place. People are getting by, but others have lost everything and are on the verge of losing what little life they have remaining. ”A haggard man used one of the huts as a home. He lay on a sagging mattress, his head on his pack, surrounded by rubbish--paper, porcelain shards, food remains, and unidentifiable debris. His hand was over his eyes. He looked like a failed soldier. Dirt seemed so worked into him that the lines of his face were like writing.” There are also orphaned kids living together in town who band together for mutual survival.
The boy’s father is a key maker. He makes keys to fit old machines. He makes keys to change the weather. He makes keys that turn the locks on hearts. There is a mysticism about what he does. Superstition has become almost a religion, but like Voodoo, it only works if you believe.
The boy lives on the hill. He is an uphiller. He has seen things. He knows things about his father that others need proof to believe.
There is the hole in the cave, a deep hole. A hole that might go to the center of the earth. When his mother disappears, the boy has nightmares. ”I thought of my mother’s hands hauling her up. Of her climbing all grave-mottled and with her face scabbed with old blood, her arms and legs moving like sticks or the legs of insects, or as stiff as toys, as if maybe when you die and come back you forget what your body is.”
But his father insists his mother is still alive.
When the man who counts people arrives, he might be the only chance the boy has to find out the real truth about his father.
This is a very strange novella, with many of the Kafkaesque aspects of being trapped into circumstances that seem inescapable. I was frequently confused for the first third of the book, but after reading numerous China Mieville novels, I knew I just needed to hang in there, and eventually this world he was creating would become more substantial, and the clouds would part enough for me to see the ground. By the end of the book, I wanted more. I wanted to fold the book out like an accordion and find the rest of the story. I wanted the lost notebook with the feverous scribbles of the where, what, and when. I can see it in my mind’s eye, written in faded red and blue ink whose words map out the future.
There are Gothic elements to the book, the shapes in the shadows, the menacing unknowable, which also helps ratchet up the ever heightening sense of terror. I felt my own tension increase as I, too, tried to find a way that the boy could escape a fate too unmentionable to put into words. This is not the place to start when reading Mieville, but it is a fascinating new wrinkle in an already outstandingly creative career. This book shows Mieville’s ability to stretch his already prodigious talents into worlds beyond where he has already been before.
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